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Facebook Loophole Allows Climate Deniers to Spread Misinformation

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Facebook Loophole Allows Climate Deniers to Spread Misinformation
President Donald Trump welcomes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Sept. 19, 2019, to the Oval Office of the White House. Official White House Photo by Joiyce N. Boghosian

Update, June 29: This post has been updated to include a comment from Facebook.

Facebook is coming under fire again for aiding climate change deniers. The platform opened a fact-checking loophole that allows misinformation to spread widely, even with opposition from scientists.


CO2 Coalition, a non-profit with ties to the Trump administration and funded in part by climate-deniers Mercer and Koch, is at the forefront of the latest dispute, Newsweek reported.

The conservative group believes that climate change fears are overblown and that burning more fossil fuels will ultimately help the planet. They have increasingly used Facebook to reach a bigger audience, E&E News reported, and Executive Director Caleb Rossiter said that the current "battle" over climate-related posts serves as a microcosm in the overall "war" over how to reach an audience outside of conservative media.

"You can reach so many people both with your posts and your advertisements," Rossiter said in the news report. "We're kind of like Donald Trump. We're not happy with the treatment we're getting from the mainstream media, we resort to social media. That's where our action is in larger part."

While the most recent commotion was triggered by a viral column Rossiter wrote in the Washington Examiner, Facebook already had a complicated history with climate deniers and fact-checking.

In May 2018, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg hired a right-wing think tank known for climate misinformation to "figure out whether Facebook displays a liberal bias," Think Progress reported. In July of the same year, Zuckerberg took additional steps towards allowing misinformation on his platform, saying that "while he won't block fake news from appearing on his site, his fact-checkers would stop it from spreading widely," the news report said.

In a dilution of that "check-and-balance," Facebook hired fact-checkers with conservative biases and a history of climate misinformation in fall of 2017 and again in April 2019.

Climate scientists were encouraged when Facebook partnered with Science Feedback last year in an expansion of their third-party fact-checking program to bring in teams of Ph.D. climate scientists to verify the accuracy of content and to lessen the platform's role in driving viral misinformation, a Science Feedback release stated.

That optimism was short-lived.

In August 2019, five Science Feedback scientists reviewed a Washington Examiner column by CO2 Coalition's Rossiter and Patrick Michaels. The column, titled The great failure of the climate models, called climate models showing warming and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuels "inaccurate," Newsweek reported.

All five scientists agreed that the piece "cherry-picks data and misleads readers" and tagged it as "biased" and "inaccurate" for Facebook. The piece was blocked from sharing as "false" and the coalition was prevented from running ads, reported E&E News.

Then came the loophole.

Facebook re-labeled Rossiter's piece as "opinion," allowing it to fall under a new fact-checking exception that overruled the climate scientists' "false" finding, reported E&E News. It became shareable, promotable with advertising and went viral.

The news report claimed a "conservative Facebook employee" can be credited with opening the door for the coalition and groups that attack mainstream climate science to leverage the "opinion" label to avoid fact-checking and spread misinformation.

CO2 Coalition, which requested the successful change, is celebrating the outcome. Rossiter noted to E&E News that after the "false" label was removed from his climate models piece, the coalition was allowed to buy ads again. They have since done so, with messages distorting climate change and claiming that they are "saving the people of the planet from the people who claim they are saving the planet." Those ads have received more than 50,000 impressions, Facebook data shows, as reported by E&E News.

The coalition and similar groups will look to Facebook to get their message to a larger audience because traditional news media "rarely seek comment on climate science from groups that reject consensus research," Rossiter said, the news report added.

Andrew Dessler, one of the five Science Feedback climate scientists who originally fact-checked CO2 Coalition's article, criticized Facebook and other social media for exempting "opinion" articles from even basic fact-checking.

"It's a powerful way to misinform people, since these groups can't win in the actual scientific arena, so they only can win in these media environments where they can pay to promote stuff," Dessler told E&E News. "It allows people to live in a bubble where you don't ever have to confront ideas that you don't want to deal with.

In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told EcoWatch, "Our long-standing guidance to the independent fact-checkers has been that clear opinion content is not subject to fact-checking on Facebook; unsurprisingly, that includes opinion editorials." The spokesperson explained, " As our policy states clearly, if publishers want to dispute a fact-check rating, they are to do so directly with the fact-checker. Facebook's third-party fact-checkers can rate climate-related content; there has never been a prohibition on their doing so."

Additionally, Facebook posted a company blog Thursday titled Providing People With Additional Context About Content They Share. A "context" button, first created in 2018, "provides information about the sources of articles in News Feed," the blog said, and is meant "to ensure people have the context they need to make informed decisions about what to share on Facebook." Notifications will include "timeliness" and "information about the source of the link."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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